Friday, August 04, 2006

Spy pics reveal ancient settlements

Source: The Courier Mail

AUSTRALIAN researchers studying declassified spy satellite images have found widespread remains of ancient human settlements dating back 130,000 years in Syria.

The photographs were taken by United States military surveillance satellites operating under the CIA and defence-led Corona program in the late 1960s.

The team of researchers travelled to the Euphrates River Valley in April and June and searched sites they had painstakingly identified using the images, which were only declassified in the late 1990s.

Group leader Mandy Mottram, a PhD student at the Australian National University's School of Archaeology and Anthropology, said the evidence of human life found in the area included a hilltop Byzantine basilica, a 24 hectare fortified town dating to the Early Bronze Age, Early Islamic pottery factories and a hilltop complex of megalithic tombs.

Ms Mottram said the researchers' trained eyes could spot small changes in the landscape, such as a different soil colour, that could indicate a former human settlement.

The images are particularly valuable because they show the landscape prior to its present rapid agricultural development.

"It's the guide for us to go out and have a look in that specific area," she said.

"It's been actually really brilliantly helpful for us. We've had a really, really high strike rate, I would say about 95 per cent."

Some of the artefacts found could dramatically change the way historians think of the area's early inhabitants, Ms Mottram said.

For example, contrary to a common belief that rural civilisations were experiencing economic and social decline from the mid-6th century, the team found evidence of widespread prosperity including many settlements and large quantities of pottery.

The researchers hope to establish the first complete record of human occupation in the area, beginning with the arrival from Africa of early human groups up to one million years ago.

They have already found tools from the Middle Palaeolithic period that are between 130,000 and 40,000 years old, and could have been made by either Neanderthals or early modern humans, as well as a few Acheulian tools that could date back several hundred thousand years.

Ms Mottram said the group was still analysing images of the items and structures they found and hoped to return to Syria next April if they secured funding.

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